Saturday, March 31, 2012

Navel gazing with a dog zombie

I am at the end of something. I am a senior in veterinary school, a short-timer, with seven weeks left. It feels just like the end of high school or the end of college: I know this place inside and out, I know my relationships with everyone, I know what I am good at and what I am bad at. I know which faculty member was my nemesis during my first few years, and which one became my nemesis in clinics, and my heart rate no longer speeds up when I encounter either (but put me in a room with both of them together and all bets are off). I know which resident everyone has a crush on. I know who is a “drop everything and go to that talk” captivating speaker. I know where to find the free food (even if I forget about Radiology Food Day every Wednesday morning). I know who to ask for under the table care of my animals and who will charge me. When I think about what it will be like to start my new life, I am filled with panic: everyone will be different. I will have to learn who is a friend and who is not, who shares my interests and who will look at me as though I am an alien.

My teachers, of course, love to ask us as we near the end of this program where we see ourselves in five years. Five years from now, I imagine I’ll be a senior again. I have a lot more that I want to learn before I settle down at a job. I set out to learn some stuff about how dog brains works and what makes a dog a dog, and I didn’t learn that at vet school, but I did learn the right words to use in describing what I am interested in. “I'm interested in dog brains but I want to find a way to study them without cutting open dog heads” became “I'm interested in behavioral neuroendocrinology in dogs, particularly the HPA axis.” “I'm interested in stress in shelter dogs” became “I have studied stress in dogs using cortisol levels as a marker, and am interested in exploring mechanisms of stress by looking at canine genetics.” “Dear god doesn't anyone else out there want to learn more about the Belyaev foxes?" became “I know where domesticated foxes are studied in this country and it sure would be nice to end up in a program there.”

So there will be more learning. In five years I hope I'll finally have completed my quest to assemble some base of information and skills that I originally set out to learn, and have had so much trouble finding all in one place. It seems likely this will involve completing a PhD program. Afterwards, I hope I will feel ready to be employed again; “going back to school” can only last you so long as a career. I expect I will at that point be asked again, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” So where do I see myself ten years from now, when I've been working for a few years, when I have gotten a good bite taken out of the process of building a career?

I could work at a shelter, organizing programs to enrich and train shelter dogs, doing research on how to get dogs into homes faster and how to keep them from coming in to a shelter in the first place. I know someone who has this job. I am jealous of her.

I could teach at a university, one with an animal sciences program or a vet school. I love teaching enough that I could imagine any number of jobs of this sort that would tickle my interest, but the dream job here would be starting a Master’s degree program in companion animal behavior. There's a need for programs like this, and damn would I love to set one up.

The very best job, though, would be one entirely devoted to outreach about how to manage dogs and cats. I’d find ways to get the information into many more of the crevices of society where it has so far failed to permeate: training dogs is a good thing. Extra litterboxes for cats are a good thing. Spaying and neutering are good things. Be a responsible pet owner and all will go well for you. Finding ways of making these things easier for people, like organizing training classes for low-income families, would be an essential part of such a job. I want to immerse myself in changing the world. I want to be able to die saying that I made a significant difference in the number of animals surrendered to animal shelters throughout the country. Does an organization ready to pay me to do this exist? Maybe, maybe not, and at any rate I’m up for starting my own.

Our teachers also like to ask us how we intend to earn enough money to pay off our staggering student loans. I do owe less on my student loans than on my house, but it is decidedly comparable, and could easily have gone the other way. I'm taking a leap of faith here. If I need to get a less interesting job in order to pay the bills, I will. But in the current climate of increasing frustration with corporations, I wonder to myself if companies will end up donating more and more money to organizations for social change in order to buy public goodwill. I know what I want to do, and I'm going to try to figure out how to get someone to give me money to do it.

I live in the future more than most people do. I always look forward, never content with where I am now, always wondering what the next thing is and how I can get there faster. In these last seven weeks of veterinary school, as I scramble to stuff information into holes in my knowledge base as fast as I encounter them, I'm also trying to pause to savor the here. Vet school has made me rant, it has made me cry, it has made me curl up in my bed and never want to come out again. It has changed me at a very deep level. I see the world in an entirely different way now than I did before. And it is almost over. I hope that what comes next is equally revelatory.


  1. Become an ethologist like Jane Goodall, but study canines. Get a PhD in that, and then do field work. There are many mysteries to canine behavior. Look at the Scott and Fuller study (I assume you've read Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog). Someone needs to extend that work across breeds, and comparative work of wild vs. domesticated canines. Regarding funding, there's nothing better than controlling your own fate, owning your own business, and then spending it to further your interests, and then giving to those that need it most, both canine and animal. Just sayin'

  2. Inspiring, truly. I'm going to hang onto this post, and use it as further motivation to get where I want to be.

    ...If whatever you start is hiring in five years, please remember me, I'll probably be looking for guidance.

    *linked on Animal Science Review*

  3. That's really nice of you, Austin, thank you so much!